The news conference in New York to announce Viacom Inc.'s purchase of CBS was a classic media scrum, with TV news trucks lining Fifth Avenue. In the luxurious St. Regis Hotel, the stars of the hour--Viacom chief Sumner Redstone and CBS head Mel Karmazin--were in the ebullient mood that usually accompanies such announcements.
For Redstone, that meant formalistic praise of his heir apparent's "creativity" and "vision" and "execution." Karmazin, 55, however, was loose and funny, with a stand-up comic's sense of delivery. He joked that the day's announcement was "a deal I wanted to make probably from the time I was bar mitzvahed."
That's one side of Mel Karmazin--down to earth, witty, a man who's able to charm a roomful of cynical reporters. And there's the other: the famously tough bottom-line executive who cracks the whip over employees and has built the career of shock jock Howard Stern in a quest for good return for shareholders.
Unlike other top executives who switch industries the way drivers switch lanes, Karmazin has remained a radio guy from the start, coming up through an industry he absolutely loves. Some media executives might flaunt their Harvard MBAs; Karmazin graduated from New York's Pace University.
"In a very short period, Mel has come a long way from answering his own phone to being a superpower," said Jeffrey Yorke, Washington bureau chief for the industry newspaper Radio & Records and a former Washington Post columnist.
Karmazin made his mark by founding and building Infinity Broadcasting, where he has been president and chief executive since 1981. The scrappy radio network prospered, thanks to his single-minded focus on getting the most out of a corporation for its shareholders.
The Karmazin management style, say people who know, is about cutting costs and watching the stock price. Those two attributes have endeared him, and his companies, to Wall Street but given him a reputation as a tough, unyielding boss.
Steven Lerman, a lawyer who has worked closely with Karmazin for 20 years and who thinks of him as a friend, says his client's approach with employees is constructive. "What he tries to do is motivate people to try to accomplish things that they don't think they can accomplish themselves. . . . He makes people who work with him better."
In the business world, Karmazin is known as an almost uncannily quick study. "When most people are moving their pawns on the chessboard, he's at checkmate," Lerman said. "He eats, drinks and sleeps the business world and [is] astute--a real student of the business game."
During his career in radio, Karmazin championed the notion of favoring good ratings over just about everything, including taste. That explains his long-standing support for Howard Stern. Karmazin snapped up Stern after a skittish NBC dropped him, and brought Stern into nationwide syndication--and controversy.
When the Federal Communications Commission fined Infinity a record $1.7 million for "indecency" violations over a six-month period, Karmazin fought back fiercely, invoking principles of free speech and demanding that the cases be put before a judge. Ultimately, though, Karmazin chose the bottom line over the First Amendment and settled the case when it became clear that the litigation was hindering Infinity's attempts to buy more stations.
Karmazin came into CBS in January 1997 when then-Westinghouse/CBS acquired Infinity. He quickly rose within the media giant, becoming chief executive officer of the CBS Station Group (Radio and Television) in May 1997 and chief operating officer of CBS Corp. the following April. In January of this year, he muscled aside CBS chief executive officer Michael Jordan, who renamed and refocused dowdy Westinghouse/CBS as a New York media company, for the top job.
Redstone, for his part, has no illusions about the ambitious drive of the man he has brought into the tent. After yesterday's news conference, Redstone predicted that when his position finally became vacant, Karmazin would get the job, and then joked, "I'm not going to stand in front of an open window with Karmazin behind me."
Karmazin laughed--and said Redstone "has hired a food taster."
Staff writers Lisa de Moraes, Liz Leyden and Frank Ahrens contributed to this story.
Mel Karmazin joked yesterday that the Viacom-CBS merger was "a deal I wanted to make probably from the time I was bar mitzvah'ed." Here are highlights from his career since then:
Position: President, CEO of CBS Corp. since Jan. 1
Born: 1944 in New York
Education: Bachelor's degree in business administration from Pace University
Career highlights: Known best as the builder of Wall Street darling Infinity Broadcasting, he began his broadcast career in the 1960s and early on was a radio ad salesman. In 1970 he moved to Metromedia, and in 1981 he founded Infinity, where he was chief executive. He joined CBS as chairman and chief executive of CBS Radio in 1997 through a merger of Westinghouse/CBS and Infinity.
Memberships: New York Stock Exchange director since June; serves on board of directors of CBS
Other: Inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1996; received the National Association of Broadcasters' National Radio Award in 1997
SOURCES: News reports, CBS, Who's Who, Bloomberg News